Back in the late 1980s, I had a conversation with Molly Ivins about the religious right. I think they were calling themselves the Moral Majority then, doublespeak for being neither. At that time, about 90% of Americans identified as religious, and conservatives and liberals were each hovering in the 40% range with the rest of the population in the middle.
Molly and I mused about the boom and bust cycle of evangelical religious “awakenings” in U.S. history, which started with big surges followed by a disaffected generation of children seeking refuge in liberal religion or secularism. Molly commented that, if the usual trends applied, the decline of the religious right would start during the Reagan years. However, she thought the decline would be delayed until after 2001 by an artificial high from the once-in-a-millennium turn of the calendar and all the religious fervor and hoping for rapture it would generate.
Turns out she was largely right about the timing. However, the surge of the religious right has also had long legs partly because it was aided by right wing corporate money, which created five think tanks to move American religion rightward. Protestant and Catholic opposition to the Contra wars had done some damage to Reagan’s Central America policies, and conservatives were furious. In 1983, “60 Minutes” depicted the moderate to liberal World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches as communist fronts, one of the worst pieces of propaganda I have ever seen passing itself off as journalism. The Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), one of the think tanks begun in the Reagan years, had a mission to move mainline Protestants hard right or eviscerate them.
In addition to the think tanks, evangelicals recruited on college campuses. As of 2005, Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, and a couple of other smaller groups were spending around $700 million per year on higher education. At the same time, the largest mainline Protestant campus ministry program—and one of the few with a serious program—was the United Methodists’, which spent $20 million a year.